Few artists are cited as an influence by so many music legends and yet remain relatively unknown to a broader audience, especially here in the UK. Bob Dylan credits Odetta as his reason for pursuing a career as a folk musician. Henry Belafonte called her a “key influence” and Janis Joplin admittedly openly that she imitated Odetta’s vocal style. Her range of music, through folk, gospel, blues and jazz has perhaps made it difficult to place her in a particular musical canon. Her dedication to social justice and civil rights has secured her importance into the 21st century and her songs seem as relevant now as they ever have been.
Ballads and Blues
Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1930, Odetta Holmes aspired to become a member of the Metropolitan Opera. She felt that her colour and background were likely to make her ambition impossible so she instead pursued a career in musical theatre. Whilst in San Francisco on tour in 1950, Odetta decided to quit theatre and dedicate her time to becoming a folk singer. She secured her first booking in a folk club after a chance meeting with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.
Odetta spent the next 5 years touring folk clubs across the US, coming to the attention of both Henry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. Focusing on the traditional American songbook, her first album ‘Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues’ was released in 1956.
The Queen of American Folk Music
It was arguably Henry Belafonte that brought stardom to Odetta when he invited her to appear on his nationally broadcast show, Tonight with Belafonte in 1959. Their duet, “There’s a hole in my bucket” proved very popular and reached the UK charts in 1961.
Odetta’s involvement in the civil rights movement increased during this time although throughout her life she remained very humble about her achievements. In 1961 Martin Luther King Jr referred to her as ‘the queen of American folk music’ and in 1965 she joined him on the Selma marches. Time magazine claimed that Rosa Parks was Odetta’s number one fan.
Although Odetta has not been remembered to the extent of her contemporaries like Nina Simone or Joan Baez, her music has not been forgotten. Unlike so many in the 1960s, she made no concession to mainstream media and presented herself as a confident, unapologetic black woman. Her work and relationships with both black and white musicians, crossing genres and communities with ease demonstrated her sheer commitment to both her music and social justice. Fifty years on, when many artists of the folk revival seem dated and even naive, Odetta stands out as a timeless icon of American folk and an important voice relevant into the twenty-first century.